Four Ways to Help Your Brain Adjust to Any Time Change
Twice a year, many of us around the world experience a time jolt, jumping an hour ahead in the spring and moving an hour backwards in the fall. Known as daylight time in the US and Canada, or summer time in the UK and other countries around the world, this process began officially in Ontario in 1908 building to greater adoption by Europe in 1916, and finally the US is 1918.
Time change has had mixed opinions since it was first introduced, but the fact is, in our industrialized global world, we experience time changes every time we travel across time zones. And while daylight or summer time is proposed to help us capture the benefits of longer daylight hours, with a twenty-four hour economy, those of us required to work alternating shifts may experience these abrupt changes on a far more frequent basis.
So how does the world clock interact and impact our biological clock? And how can we combat the inevitable disorientation these changes bring to our system?
Time Changes Within The Brain
Before we standardized time, human civilizations and societies ran their days based around the sun. Time, in essence, was fluid, shifting with the seasons. However, as we evolved to more industrialized nations, the concept of a standardized method of time became necessary. But time in relation to our brain is still a concept, dictated by our biological clock, not Greenwich Mean Time (or any other time zone).
Deep within our hypothalamus is a cluster of around 20,000 neurons. This cluster is known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, and is the center of our master biological clock, sending signals throughout our bodies to maintain our circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms and biological clocks are often confused as the same thing. And while they’re similar, the SCN is what creates the circadian rhythms, making them part of the same process but not the same. When we refer to circadian rhythms we are talking about the complex system of hormones and chemical signals that the SCN directs throughout the body.
If left without external light or interference, our biological clock naturally runs on an approximate twenty-four hour cycle, what’s known as solar time. Since the SCN receives its direct input from the optical nerves, the biological clock is dictated primarily by light. The rising and setting of the sun sets the clock, which is essentially the timing cycle our circadian rhythms are run by.
Based on solar time, our brain releases serotonin, cortisol, and melatonin at various times throughout the day, synchronized with the natural light cycle. These chemical signals make up the elegant schedule our circadian rhythms run on, and communicate countless bodily functions such as our sleep-wake cycle, our eating habits, digestion, body temperature regulation, energy levels, and overall alertness.
Experiencing any time shifts, whether from work, travel, or annual daylight savings time, misaligns our biological clock, forcing it to reset. The good news is that our biological clocks are meant to be adjusted. However, resetting our clock takes time, depending on the severity of the shift, and we risk throwing the circadian rhythms entirely off kilter. These shifts can cause several circadian disorders. Some are short term imbalances, such as we experience with jet lag, where we feel disoriented, restless, or have trouble sleeping until we adjust to the local time zone. But some of these shifts can cause long term symptoms resulting in more serious health problems such as obesity, chronic anxiety, headaches, and heart disease.
Regardless of whether you’re planning a trip or simply want to avoid the literal headache of annual time change, there are effective ways to prepare your body for upcoming shifts and combat any symptoms you may experience.
How to stabilize your rhythm throughout the year
- Use Light
Since our SCN is set by light, we can use light to help us reset our internal solar clock. But be aware: not all light is created equal. Blue light and white light disrupt the natural production of melatonin, blue light more than any other type of light. The problem? Blue light is in many of the LED lights we use to be energy efficient, along with in most device screens including tablets, cell phones, and televisions.
By understanding the power of light, we can utilize this powerful tool to adjust our internal clock. Use yellow light at night and avoid blue or white light for a minimum of thirty minutes before going to sleep. In the morning, especially if it’s still dark outside, turn on as many blue and white lights as you can to help lower the melatonin in your body and increase serotonin and cortisol production. This helps us wake up faster and is important in ensuring our circadian rhythms maintain the stability they need.
2. Stick To A Routine
In order to ensure we don’t experience dramatic symptoms, it’s best to gradually adjust our schedule, preferably in fifteen minute increments in the weeks leading up to the change. If we have an already established nighttime routine, this makes adjusting our schedule even easier.
A routine is a series of habits cemented from conscious thinking into our automatic routines. Once we begin a routine, our brain sends a signal to complete the set of tasks, and if we are using this routine before we get in bed and go to sleep, our brain will use this routine as a cue to increase melatonin, preparing our body for sleep. Conversely, if we need to stay awake later, this can help too, as our brain won’t begin the nighttime process until it receives the first cue in the routine. This makes using a routine a powerful tool, and can be used to control the schedule we need to follow, combatting the negative effects of a time shift.
3. Adhere To A Daily Schedule
Following a bedtime routine is good for going to sleep. But if you need to function on an entirely different schedule, such as when traveling across multiple time zones or working a night shift, your body will need to adjust to more than a wake-sleep schedule.
If we travel across the five time zones, from New York to Russia for example, we are going to jolt our bodies seven hours ahead. If we land around 2pm EST, that’s 9PM in Moscow. Our body may tell us it’s time for lunch and be ready for several more hours of activity. However, if we want to adjust, we actually need to begin our nighttime routine to signal it’s time for sleep.
Again, we can use routine to help our bodies adjust more gradually and stay on track no matter what time zone we’re in or what shift we have to work. Getting up at a consistent time, even on your days off will help your body stay attuned to the shift you need it to function properly at. Ensuring you maintain a regular eating schedule will help your brain stabilize your metabolism and digestion.
4. Maintain Healthy Habits
When we’re tired, it’s easy to grab an extra cup of coffee or drink soda instead of water. Making a healthy meal feels overwhelming, especially when fast food on the way home is so much easier. And when our circadian rhythms are off, these quick fixes start contributing to long-term problems.
When adjusting to your new schedule, make sure to drink plenty of water, limit caffeine intake, eat healthy, avoid sugar, and maintain your daily exercise routine. These healthy habits will help your brain stay on task to continue performing your daily functions with little disruption.
Some people have more flexible circadian rhythms than others, making time change transitions easier. But for those who don’t, there are powerful tools and resources we can use to help ease our bodies and brain into any transition in our natural day.